Perhaps Beekeeping Should Change?

(The post below first appeared as a Letter to the Editor in Bee Culture magazine)

It was an interesting January, bookmarked with the American Beekeeping Federation (ABF) meeting at Disneyland at the front end, and ending with the American Bee Research Conference (ABRC) in Tucson, Arizona at the end.

These are quite different meetings. The ABF attracts around 900 beekeepers, many managing commercial operations with upwards of 10-70,000 colonies. The ABRC is much smaller, around 100 participants, mostly honeybee researchers, extension agents and government regulators.

I was left with a sense of optimism from both meetings, unexpected since beekeeping continues to flirt with an epic disaster caused by 1/3 of all colonies dying every year. This has been going on for a decade now, with colonies dying each year and replaced by beekeepers splitting their surviving colonies and building up their numbers again each spring.

But apiculturists are beginning to realize that many of the issues causing the demise of our colonies are outside our control. Of particular concern are a lack of abundant and diverse nectar and pollen sources due to the vast weed-free, single-crop acreages typical in farming today, and heavy use of pesticides by farmers.

This is a long-term problem not easily amenable to change. Even long-term transformation is problematic since political pressure exerted by the beekeeping industry has little influence, because it is a tiny industry lost in the vast magnitude of contemporary corporate agriculture.

I observed two positive trends in hallway conversations that are encouraging. The first involves recognizing that beekeepers’ interests and those of agriculture as it is practiced today are not necessarily compatible. Finding alliances with other organizations with allied values could create a considerably more effective coalition lobbying to shift agriculture in a direction healthier for bees.

Beekeeping could be leading a movement towards more sustainable farming rather than buying into the large scale and high input agricultural systems that too many beekeepers are enmeshed in. If so, there are innumerable interest groups with which to align: organic growers, sustainable farmers, the urban and local food movements and a vast array of environmental groups, among others.

The love-hate relationship beekeepers have developed with pesticide companies might be one alignment worth pondering. Traditionally, we’ve been anti-pesticide, recognizing that many field chemicals are toxic to bees. For that reason, beekeepers often have been in the forefront of movements for stronger pesticide regulation.

Ironically, beekeepers also have become dependent on those same companies to invent and market new chemicals to control bee diseases, pests and parasites. Like the farmers we criticize for overuse and reckless applications of pesticides in fields, we beekeepers ourselves have stepped onto the same chemical treadmill, losing credibility and the high ground in campaigns to reduce pesticide use and implement stronger regulations. It’s common for beekeepers to apply mite-killing chemicals four to six times a year, a sure recipe to induce resistance in the mites through over-application, as well as leaving considerable residues in comb.

Which brings up the second trend I noticed at these meetings, a realization that beekeeping itself has to change. Many, perhaps most, commercial beekeepers are no longer primarily honey producers, but have become pollination managers, moving their bees from crop to crop for the pollination fee, with honey a messy byproduct.

These are enormous mass migrations, with 60% of American bees moved onto just one crop, almonds, each February, about 1.6 million colonies, and many colonies moved three or more times a season to various crops (Canadian beekeepers are somewhat less migratory). These beekeepers have come to depend on the high fees they charge growers for pollination, but income is offset with steep costs for labor, equipment, transport and travel, not to mention stress on bees and beekeepers alike.

I have yet to find an economic analysis that shows migratory beekeeping is the optimal way to make money in the beekeeping industry. Stationary beekeepers who leave their colonies at one apiary site all year, or perhaps move only once and more locally, may not get the high pollination fees, but they also don’t have the costs. Many migratory beekeepers are starting to question whether moving bees is the best way to make a dollar.

Beekeepers also are striving to get off their self-induced chemical treadmill, and flock to sessions at meetings with speakers claiming to be managing their bees free of synthetic pesticides and antibiotics. Some talk about embracing gentler strains of African bees because they swarm often, which breaks the varroa mite’s breeding cycle. Swarm prevention has always been high on a beekeeper’s management agenda, but perhaps that type of out-of-the-box thinking will be necessary to evolve a sustainable beekeeping industry.

Another innovative idea I heard floated was for beekeepers to metamorphosize into pollination habitat managers, contracted by growers to create and maintain habitat, nesting sites and forage for wild bees. Honeybees would be used as supplemental pollinators only when necessary, and at much reduced colony numbers from the current migratory avalanche.

Honeybee health and survival can improve, but only through a combination of agricultural change and the evolution of beekeeping itself.

Planners of beekeeping meetings, here’s a session idea for your next conference: Audacious Ideas for the Future of Beekeeping.

That’s what the survival of beekeeping needs: daring and bold ideas, and the courage to implement them.